Upcoming 'Huckleberry Finn' Edition Replaces 'N-Word'

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

A new edition of Mark Twain's "Huckleberry Finn" is being published in February, replacing the "n-word," which shows up 219 times in the original edition. Instead the publisher, New South Books, uses the word "slave." New South's editor-in-chief, Randall Williams, told The Takeaway that removing the racial slur isn’t censorship.


However, in a society where kids encounter this word in so many different contexts, including pop-culture, among friends, and in the "real world" - does the move to edit Twain's masterpiece make sense? David Wall Rice, an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at Morehouse College in Atlanta explores the complex situation.


David Wall Rice

Produced by:

Duncan Wilson

Comments [25]

Ann from North Dakota

As a white English teacher among predominantly white students with just a few black students in class, I have agonized over how to teach Huck Finn. How can I teach with or about a word I cannot bring myself to say aloud? How sad would it be if I let my discomfort remove this great book and its valuable lessons from my classroom?
Ken Burns' documentary on Twain has helped my students (and me) do some of the "heavy lifting" Rice wisely recommends. Sometimes we still need to do things "not because they are easy, but because they are hard."

Jan. 06 2011 05:24 PM
taylor from minneapolis

In response to Mr. Maxwell, I respectfully disagree not only with your comment, but also the thinking behind it. The belief that "if it's ok for YOU to use a word,, then it is ok for ME to use that same word. Don't like me saying it,, then I shouldn't hear it from others." is unbelievably juvenile. It's akin to saying, everyone else is doing it so I should too. This is not how progress will be made, quite the opposite actually. As Ghandi said, we must be the change we wish to see in the world. With regard to your first sentence, there is no level of censorship that is tolerable. If a grade school teacher can't teach the material to his/her students as is, then he/she should avoid teaching it. We shouldn't be dumbing down, on the contrary, we should be guiding and challenging the next generation to acheive more.

Jan. 06 2011 09:17 AM
James Maxwell from Memphis

I completely understand why an edited version should be used for grade school children, but once they are in high school that is a different story and should be left alone. On a personal level I have a real hard time with this word, I will admit I use it on occasion, but my use is nothing in comparison to others that use it ALL the time. I guess what I am trying to say is,,, if it's ok for YOU to use a word,, then it is ok for ME to use that same word. Don't like me saying it,, then I shouldn't hear it from others.

Jan. 06 2011 08:12 AM
Bob Gardner from Randolph, MA

I would agree with all the commenters that this is terrible case of censorship except for one thing. Huckleberry Finn cannot be read aloud on NPR.
If a book can be banned from the public airways, on a network which is broadcast to adults, why can't it be bowdlerized to to shield children and adolescents?

Jan. 05 2011 07:06 PM
Jac Zagoory from LES, NYC

Why stop there? After rewriting literature and the past we can erase or rewrite racist remarks that come out of politician's mouths, since the next step will be a racist recovery app. Puff! I never said that.

Jan. 05 2011 06:07 PM
MK Reet

Twain's work is a window into the past. To change that work to satisfy some present day discomfort with that past is a complete lack of respect for the author and a lock of respect for our ability as a society to learn and grow from the past.

Jan. 05 2011 02:40 PM
Steve from Seattle

One meta-takeaway of your discussion is that today's US society tacitly backs up Randall Williams' point of view, by substituting "the n-word" in comments like this, and in discussions like yours on the radio with Professor Rice. The heavy lifting of our national psyche, which will also signify the beginning of the end of institutional racism, will commence when we hear the word in question aloud in public, on the radio, and in print when we talk about these issues--and not before. Hope I live to see the day.

Jan. 05 2011 12:53 PM
Rose Adler

It's the past that teaches us to affect the future in a better way.

Jan. 05 2011 12:07 PM
Mary Kathleen Angel from Farmington, Michigan

Removing the "n" word from historically significant pieces of fiction would be a revision of history akin to retouching something out of an old photograph - our picture of how things used to be would no longer be accurate. Although the word offends me and makes me wince when I read it, I remind myself that I am witnessing the past, not the present. The occurrence of this word in our heritage shows us how much we have changed. It provokes thought, and we should trust the reader to react intelligently to a word that was once but is no longer acceptable.

Jan. 05 2011 11:14 AM
taylor from minneapolis

Pure censorship and nothing more. The rational used to defend Dr. Gribben's censored version of Huck Finn is almost more offensive than the censoring act itself. If Huck Finn isn't being taught because teachers and schools are banning it, then the schools and teachers should be held accountable for their negligence and overwhelming lack of educational skills. If you're an English teacher and feel that you can't teach Huck Finn as is, you should rethink your profession. This is nowhere near the level of cultural/historical impact or general ignorance of a holocaust denier, but it's a similar mindset. Absolutely unacceptable.

Jan. 05 2011 10:51 AM
Mike Delise from mini-van story

who cares about technology in mini vans or if males are not interested in driving them- all that matters is that everything possible is being done to get the greatest MPG out of them or that they have a way to produce power w/o fossil fuel. what about solar panels on their large roofs? electric motors for around town, which is 90% of their use.........................

Jan. 05 2011 10:22 AM
Gregory D. from Los Angeles

I think Rice has it right on this point. "Whitewashing" (to take from another Twain classic) the n-word from history and/or historical works of art only serves to erase the truth behind the word, and not its distorted and perverse legacy. Instead of presenting (mostly White) students with the historical context of the word, the conflation of it with the word slave leaves the student with the impression that the n-word is just something Black people call each other and other people "can't" use. However well intentioned, the best case scenario is that many students never get a lesson on the legacy of the n-word in America, the worst case is that this is only the beginning of the perversion of our nation's past.

Jan. 05 2011 10:07 AM
Greg Allen from Windsor, ON

The writings of Mark Twain (or any person) should by law be unalterable by any other person or party, unless the altered version bares a giant scarlet letter "A" on it's cover for all to see. Further any revenues gained from such "impostor" works should be directed to a legal fund to assist artists of original works in protecting their work, and the public from such atrocities.

Jan. 05 2011 10:01 AM
Richard Lambke from New Jersey

Hemingway said "All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn. If you read it you must stop where the N-----r Jim is stolen from the boys. That is the real end. The rest is just cheating. But it's the best book we've had. All American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since."

Jan. 05 2011 09:30 AM
harald hardrada from Rye, NH

At last Americans are being honest about what they want. By substituting 'slave' for the 'n' word, Whites are showing they want to enslave Blacks again, while Blacks are showing that they want to go back to being slaves.

Jan. 05 2011 09:05 AM
Buck from Mpls

Bowdler did this as well-even to Shakespere- in the 19th Century; from which we get the term 'Bowdlerized'. Misguided and stupid. The road to Hell, as they say, is paved with good intentions. Let me ask this; would Huck's statement of "All right then, I'll go to Hell" be as powerful if the term "Heck" was used in its place? No.
This is a stupid idea.

Jan. 05 2011 09:04 AM
Charley Miller from Walled Lake, MI

Of all the commentary I have heard for the past several days I have not heard anyone state that Jim was simply not a slave. He was a free man and to change this context is not only censorship, but historically inacuarte.

Jan. 05 2011 09:01 AM
Brad Fielder from Oklahoma

The book is a document of it's time, not ours. Altering the text to reflect current politically correct attitudes would be a great injustice to the integrity of the book and the author.
What's next, "The Native American in the Cupboard"?
Censorship in any form, for any reason is wrong and harmful.

Jan. 05 2011 09:01 AM
Jane from Pittsburgh, PA

I think the editing of one of the most important works of literature which reflects the society of the time accurately is absurd.
I hear the "N-word" used on a daily basis by people of colour who seem to have no problem with offending the sensibilties of others with its usage.
This word was used in the society of the time (wrongly as it may be) and editing it out is just as wrong as its past usage.
What is more important - History told truthfully in all of its ugliness or a watered-down telling so as not to hurt the "delicate feelings" of the politically correct.

Jan. 05 2011 08:48 AM
Louise Mancuso from Brooklyn, NY

I teach adult literacy to students who often admit that they can not relate to issues of racism, although they are African- or Caribbean-American. My 20-something students are unaware of the realities of racism and apartheid. Twain's language had purpose - he wanted to promote abolition in his time, and provide a truthful history lesson for generations to come. History books will never reveal truth in the way that literature does.

Jan. 05 2011 08:43 AM
Iain from Canada

As a Canadian, I'm shocked that the word 'slave' is considered a neutral term. However powerful the N word is, is the word 'slave' any less scathing?

Jan. 05 2011 08:33 AM

I think it's interesting that in making an argument for the use "n***er" in the book, Rice and the Headlee both avoided saying, "N***er Jim."

Personally, I don't think Huck Finn is THAT important of a book. But maybe I was distracted by all of the "n***ers" so I missed the art. In this day and age, I think many young children (who are told the book is a classic) are distracted by it but having your White classmates say the word "n***er" hundreds of times while reading Huck Finn is a right of passage for many Black students, probably for the White students as well. It's confronting history.

Rice is correct that it's an effort to solve for America's history without the heavy lifting. We need to stop editing history in our classrooms and shoud try to make sense of it. We have to confront it.

P.S. It should also be noted that I couldn't use the word fully in this comment because the site blocks it from submission.

Jan. 05 2011 08:23 AM
Asa from NYC

Altering the text of a dead author is always tricky. Abridgments are one thing but changing the words gets quite close to censorship.

I do not recall at the moment but are there any times in the book when Twain uses n----r (blocked by site, really?) to mean a free black or are the uses always slaves? That alone seems reason to keep it the way it is.

Jan. 05 2011 08:11 AM
klmn from nyc

To alter the work of one of the greatest writers who ever lived is nothing less than criminal. The word in question, I think, used to have negative connotations, but its usage has evolved, and is now used so frequently (in rap, hip-hop, and even casual conversation) that it's become almost commonplace.

Jan. 05 2011 07:24 AM
Donna Y. Perrotta from Providence, RI

As an English teacher, I am shocked that Huck Finn will be edited in any way. What will be taught is that it is okay to take Twain's valuable language - which teaches a powerful lesson; especially from the perspective of Twain and the world at the time, and avoid the valuable lesson which Twain intended.

Jan. 05 2011 06:26 AM

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